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“Wild animals”, ethics, and veg*anism

September 29, 2009

A very apt quote I just ran across, while doing some quick research on Tenskwatawa:

Connected in Algonquian thinking with differences between Indian and white–coded in terms of skin color–was a second set of differences: will [sic] versus tame. In rejecting conversion, Indians spoke of not being “tamed.” In this discourse, conversion made Indians “tame,” and once “tamed,” Indians could be slaughtered by whites in the same way domestic livestock was. This had, as Buckongahelas reminded the Moravians, actually happened at Gnaddenhutten.67
Algonquian visionaries amplified the analogies between Christian and tame and Indian and wild into codes of conduct. Thus the unnamed woman visionary of 1803 identified the loss of wild animals with the inappropriate Indian adoption of tame animals. To restore the wild, Indians had to break connections with the tame. To restore deer, cattle must be killed. Warriors expressed their hostility to the Moravians by shooting “our best hog before our eyes.” Tenskwatawa ordered Indians to kill their cattle.68

This is a little heavy in interpretations based more in the oppositional dualism familiar to the author* than in Algonquian thinking, but still makes an excellent point. Once “domesticated”, they would soon also be easier to keep track of and herd west of the Mississippi. (As Barbara Mann points out in her “Slow Runners”, some Natives continued to resist “taming” even after that.)

Tenskwatawa, among others, was connecting different strands of the wétiko approach to life. These reactions had more to do with how the colonists** perceived animals and women–as owned consumables, with no other real purpose in life–than with how the Shawnee saw them. He was also afraid of his people catching the wétiko illness themselves, by behaving like the colonists. If you start behaving in certain ways, it’s hard to keep clear of the ways of thinking that engender the behavior. I haven’t talked up Jack Forbes’ Columbus and other Cannibals to the extent it deserves, beyond adopting its wétiko terminology, but that’s a major part of it: certain destructive ways of thinking are contagious, and engaging in the same kinds of behavior yourself is likely to infect you.

These are some of the same ideas I had to consider recently, and which led me to stop gaining benefit from animals kept in captivity, as far as possible. At that point, I hadn’t thought specifically of Tenskwatawa and his movement.

I have written elsewhere about the “wild” vs. “domesticated” dichotomy, though I can’t find it right now. There’s a bit about it in that previous post about reconsidering some food choices. This is a much more Western idea, and I suspect the Shawnee (again, among others) were also resisting being shoved into a European-created category that didn’t even reflect the world as they saw it.

As Bruce Johansen points out, “Western texts still assume that Haudenosaunee preserve animals must have been wild, but as John Heckewelder recorded, many of the forest animals were ‘tame’ (Heckewelder 1820, 192). The Haudenosaunee did not pen their animals–they regarded the demoralized farm animals of the Europeans as prisoners–but instead allowed them to run free in the forests until they were needed.” He presents some other concise information on how this worked in the Eastern Woodlands in general. It’s a good example of how differently “wild” and “tame” worked, not to mention the levels of respect involved. The animals were no less deserving of respect because humans might eventually need to eat them to stay alive, and were assumed to have an existence independent of human wants and needs.

The original quote inspiring this post, caught my eye in relation to a discussion that came up last month over at Womanist Musings and Vegans of Color.

I don’t have time right now to go into much detail, but it’s hard for me to separate speciesism and racism (and sexism, and all the varied faces of wétiko), having grown up very aware that American Indians had been regarded as dangerous wild animals to be wiped out. A disturbing number of White Americans will cluck about sad necessity and more brutal times if pressed, but are happy enough thinking that we really were mostly killed, like wolves over most of the continent. You may not hear the goodness of Manifest Destiny expressed in those terms these days, but the ideology is still alive and well, and a lot of people are drawing benefit from it. My Indian ancestors resisted being “domesticated” in the Western sense, though some were enslaved and more gave in to the kind of assimilation Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh were fighting. When they resisted hard enough, they were openly compared to animals and hunted down. The other bloggers covered better than I can how my Black ancestors were treated, and compared to animals. Gaelic speakers also got called filthy animals, and they frequently cast their lot with Indian and Black people in early Virginia. With all that history in mind, it’s hard not to sympathize with the way non-human animals are done by the system we’re still living under. “Can’t forget ’cause the memory lingers”#.

As Royce put it, “For me to use biology to explain why it isn’t ok to kill or cage me, but it is to kill or cage someone else is a replication of power dynamics. It is shitting on those lower than me on a hierarchy of power, so that I can keep my perch away from the bottom.” Talk about All My Relations (which can be expressed as “Ea Nigada Qusdi Idadadvhni” in Tsalagi). That’s an important ethical principle to me, demanding a level of honor and respect. Knowingly taking part in weird human-constructed power hierarchies really does crap all over that.

To quote Chief Dan George, Coast Salish elder, “If you talk to the animals, they will talk with you, and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them, and what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears, one destroys.” That’s wétiko power dynamics in a nutshell, no matter what Othered group you’re looking at.

Edit: The “Possibly related posts” feature produced an interesting article: Native Americans and Vegetarianism, by Rita Laws, Ph.D., over at Thomas Paine’s Corner. I must say that I get the strong impression that the Tutelo (and Tsalagi) really did eat a lot of freshwater fish and shellfish, along with other meat, especially in the winter. Summer food still centers around the abundance of vegetables and fruit back home, especially if you’ve still got somewhere to grow them. The author also ignores that many–if not most–of the buffalo got killed (by non-Indians) as part of a deliberate scorched earth policy; the factors she describes sound more like the earlier devastating deerskin and fur trade in the East, and no doubt similar did happen on the Plains. But the article still makes some good points. 😉 Including the different style of cultivation: “Many of the ‘wild’ foods Anglo explorers encountered on their journeys were actually carefully cultivated by Indians.”
* It’s not nearly as contorted as the author’s interpretation of “turning Indians into women” which immediately follows, at least. Reducing them to the status of women in the eyes of colonist men, very probably. Then there’s the the mythological Great Serpent (predictably) turning “evil” rather than “dangerous to humans, so best avoided”. *sigh* Barbara Mann covers the enduring bias in interpretation–usually unintentionally contorting evidence to fit one’s own cultural ideas–much better than I can, in Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas.

** By 1800, they may have formed their own government, but they were still colonists, colonizing as hard as they could go.

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